Remembering Herman Wallace (1941 – 2013)

Early yesterday morning, a mere three days after he was released from prison, iconic “Angola 3” member Herman Wallace died – a free man.

My heart is heavy. I am beyond grateful that Herman passed surrounded by loved ones after surviving a nightmare of more than 41 years in cruel, inhuman and degrading solitary confinement. I am unspeakably angry that the State of Louisiana’s vindictive cruelty has not let up, even at Herman’s final breath. I am incredulous that a step toward justice has taken this long.

Herman Wallace was first placed in solitary in 1972, after prison guard Brent Miller was murdered at Angola prison. He was convicted of the murder two years later, after a trial riddled with legal flaws and inconsistencies. On October 1, a federal judge overturned Herman’s conviction, ordering the state to immediately release him. Louisiana authorities tried desperately to keep Herman behind bars, appealing against the court order, even as an ambulance waited outside Elayn Hunt correctional center.

It was not until Judge Jackson quashed the appeal, threatening to hold the authorities in contempt, that Herman Wallace was released and driven to New Orleans, where crowds of supporters were waiting to welcome him home. More than 110,000 people from the United States and around the world, through Amnesty International, had called on Governor Bobby Jindal for Herman’s release.

Herman Wallace was diagnosed with liver cancer while still held in solitary confinement – a diagnosis that medical experts say should have come much sooner, given his medical history. The state moved him to a medium security dormitory after thousands of people raised their voices on his behalf, but waited six weeks to administer oral chemotherapy, as his tumors continued to grow.

After spending most of his life battling injustice in the U.S. prison system, Herman spent his final weeks in prison battling cancer while receiving substandard medical care. Despite all this, Herman was never silenced. In one of his last statements from prison, he decried the fundamental disregard for human rights that thousands of prisoners held in solitary endure, saying “I speak on behalf of every inmate whose voice has been suppressed when I speak out against these abuses.”

I never met Herman, and yet I will always remember him as larger-than-life – a symbol of resistance to human rights abuses and injustice. Just two years after John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in silent protest against racial discrimination at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Herman Wallace helped establish a chapter of the Black Panthers at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. With fellow “Angola 3” members Albert Woodfox and Robert King, he began to organize for fair treatment and better conditions for inmates, racial solidarity between black and white inmates; and an end to the endemic rape and sexual slavery inside Angola.

Just as Carlos and Smith were booed and unceremoniously sent home, all three members of the Angola 3 maintain that they were convicted of murder and placed in solitary in retaliation for their activism with the Black Panther Party. Robert King was released after 29 years when his conviction was overturned, and Herman after more than 41. Albert Woodfox is still being held in the unthinkable nightmare of solitary confinement today.

Albert’s conviction has been overturned three times yet, like Herman, the state has worked dogmatically to keep him behind bars and appealed every ruling. His case is now pending before the Fifth Circuit Court.

For me, like hundreds of thousands of Herman’s supporters around the world, today is a day of mourning. It is a day of sadness, anger and countless other emotions that are nearly impossible to put into words. But it is also a moment to remind ourselves that, to truly honor Herman’s legacy, we have to channel those feelings into action. So today, I call on the State of Louisiana to immediately remove Albert Woodfox from solitary confinement. I call on the authorities to withdraw their appeal and allow Albert his freedom. Today I will not be silent. Today, I will remember Herman Wallace.

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